At 10.30am this morning it’s exactly one week until the start of the 2021/22 NZC home summer of cricket.
The first balls of the season will be bowled in the Plunket Shield at Hagley Oval and the Cello Basin Reserve. Canterbury will set out to defend their first-class championship title at home against the Central Stags in Christchurch while 2019/20 champions the Wellington Firebirds look to get back to winning ways against the Otago Volts in the capital.
Leading out his beloved Otago in his 13th season will be Hamish Rutherford who was one of the top runscorers nationally last season — his haul of 588 runs from eight matches only two runs behind Northern Districts captain Joe Carter’s 590.
In half of his innings he’d reached a half century or better and the seasoned left-hand opener’s good form continued for Glamorgan as he overwintered in the United Kingdom and ticked off his 7000th first-class career run.
It was Rutherford’s fifth season of County Championship cricket after previous stints for Essex (2013), Derbyshire (2015 and 2016) and Worcestershire (2019), but he was obviously returning to a very different Britain grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many Kiwi cricketers have looked to fly north like godwits at the end of each home summer to play in UK club and County competitions, but far fewer have done so these past two years. So — having booked his return MIQ spot before he left New Zealand — what drove Rutherford to go?
“I know I’ve played a bit now for a few teams, but the opportunity to play County cricket doesn’t come around too often for a player like me who’s not playing International cricket and is not to be scoffed at,” says Rutherford, back in Dunedin now and playing inter-squad with the Volts on grass ahead of the impending away trip to Wellington this week.
“It’s difficult to get these opportunities and to be honest, it pays the bills as well, now that I have a young family.
"I see myself as a professional cricketer and I like to make the most of every opportunity I get. Although it was three months away from home, it brought an opportunity to play at a good standard and to improve my game.
“I got double-jabbed while I was over there. I appreciate from the case numbers it looked like it was carnage over there, but on the ground in cricket [with protocols in place], it was mainly normal life for us, to some degree.
“We had a couple of cases in our team, did a 10-day isolation that coincidentally didn’t affect our campaign because we had 10 scheduled days off. Some teams did have to postpone games after cases, but from a cricket point of view we were able to play pretty much as normal.”
Besides building on the good form he had showed over the 2020/21 New Zealand summer, Rutherford came home with a couple of unique souvenirs. One was a maiden first-class wicket by his name. The 32-year-old has bowled only 210 balls in his entire career but delivered the statistical fancy by bowling Surrey number four Ollie Pope at the Kia Oval in September.
To be fair, Pope was on 274 at the time. There may have been an element of exasperation from his captain as he gave the entire team a turn at the bowling crease, but a wicket’s a wicket and an England Test representative will do quite nicely for a maiden victim.
Rutherford’s other special souvenir is a Royal London Cup winner’s medal, the UK equivalent of winning The Ford Trophy.
He contributed four valuable half centuries to Glamorgan’s winning white-ball campaign (including 67 off 44 balls in a semi-final upset). It ended a long spell between drinks for the southerner who last got to celebrate with the Otago Volts in 2012/13 when they won that year’s T20 trophy.
It had been an even longer spell for Glamorgan who hadn’t won anything for 17 years, but that kind of hunger is nothing new to Rutherford. Otago last won the Plunket Shield in 1987/88, before he was born.
“Otago won both comps that year. I lose count every year when I try to think how long it’s been and perhaps not every player is as keenly aware of it as I am, but I definitely think about that stat. I haven’t won too many titles in my career, but to win the Plunket Shield would be the ultimate for me.”
It’s not far-fetched. He has watched his team make big strides in the last three years in both The Ford Trophy — making back-to-back Grand Finals — and the Plunket Shield, in which Otago has finished in top three for the past two seasons.
This summer they will head out under a new overseer, with former Canterbury and Central Districts assistant coach Dion Ebrahim embarking on his first season as a Head Coach, while the Volts’ former mentor Rob Walter is in his first summer as Head Coach of the Central Stags.
Canterbury is coached by Peter Fulton in his second season while the Wellington Firebirds have been well steered by Glenn Pocknall.
While Rutherford was at the top end of the batting statistics last season, Canterbury’s Will Williams finished as the top first-class wicket-taker for the first time in his career, with 31 at a lean 17.03 average including his first two bags.
“The whole Canterbury team was performing well together, and that’s what helped me perform myself,” said Williams.
How did Canterbury race away to win 2020/21 with two rounds to spare?
“We kept it simple, in a nutshell. Simple conversations at training and we did the basics well. For me, that was hitting good lengths and knowing the times when to attack.
“We have a really good group of seamers together working for each other as well, and we all want to play with a positive brand.”
Williams may find himself going head-to-head next weekend with Central Stag and short-form BLACKCAP Blair Tickner who meanwhile backed up his white-ball reputation with consistent gains in red-ball.
Tickner finished as the Stags’ Plunket Shield top wicket-taker for the first time with 23 wickets from just six matches, fourth highest nationally behind Williams, Otago’s Michael Rae (29) and Canterbury’s Fraser Sheat (27).
Like the Volts, the Stags headed to Bay Oval in the build-up to this season to train on grass and both Rutherford and Tickner say players appreciate how fortunate they have been while many of the Auckland and Northern Districts squads have been in lockdown, and unable to train together.
“We're very excited to get out there again. And, obviously very grateful to have been able to get out and train and prepare pretty much as normal, while the more northern players are still in lockdown with a delayed start to their season,” said Tickner.
The big pace bowler was part of the winning Stags side in 2017/18 and 2018/19 and is hungry to get his hands back on the historic trophy.
“We know how special it is to win it, and what it takes. It’s the hardest trophy to win.
“We’ve had a great build up under Rob and I can't think of a better way to start our campaign than by going up against the defending champions and proving a point or two.”
ROUND ONE | PLUNKET SHIELD
From 10.30am, Saturday 23 to Tuesday 27 October 2021
Hagley Oval, Christchurch*
Canterbury v Central Stags
Cello Basin Reserve*
Wellington Firebirds v Otago Volts
PLUNKET SHIELD - full schedule
FORD TROPHY - full schedule
Matches are livestreamed and live-scored by NZC at www.nzc.nz and on the NZC app
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